Logging On to See the Surreal Where It Isn’t

Why does scrolling on my phone feel even more… avant-garde than usual?

by Eileen Cartter
Apr 5 2020, 6:28am

Scrolling, scrolling, scrolling.

I pause. Yet another bread making post on my feed, a now-familiar presence: this one’s a close-up interior shot of a sourdough loaf, no doubt baked in the quarantine kitchen of someone who has enough cabinet space to store flour. I am on Instagram. This is how Instagram looks now.

I stare into the bread’s doughy caverns. My pupils start to twist. It feels like I’m falling into its open crumb, tumbling deeper through my screen into the depths like I’m going through the opal in the Uncut Gems opening title sequence, until things start looking… psychedelic.

My eyes dart to the top of my feed. As is now usual, four to nine celebrities and/or a few people I went to high school with whom I follow are going “live” at any given moment. Sometimes, they even go live together. (The celebrities, not the people from high school.) At the uppermost edge of my phone screen, the live Instagram Story circles, ringed in violet and fuschia, contract and expand like bubbles in sourdough starter. Have they been properly fed yet today? Are they ready? Am I?

Toggling over to my Explore feed, I see a Britney Spears meme—she, the evergreen poster of positivity, apparent comrade, recently anointed patron saint of the self-isolation era. It’s a video of her performance of “…Baby One More Time” at the 1999 VMAs, and the accompanying text reads “Me every time I walk into the kitchen.” In the video, there she stands, in a spotlit power-stance, having just emerged on stage. As the crowd roars in the background, the vocals kick in. A single line:

“My loneliness is killing me.”

The effect is completely surreal. Firstly, it’s a bone-chilling lyric when isolated. What does it mean? It is, of course, a coronavirus meme, a joke about how we’re all alone in our houses. A highly typical format—“that feel when” prompt, nostalgic visual reference—rendered completely off-putting by its incompleteness. What should be familiar and straightforward suddenly feels as warm as ice, and strangely full of depth, like a pro wrestling match carried out, mid-pandemic, in an empty arena. (To continue the Uncut Gems simile, we’ve probably made it past the opal and into the colon at this point.) And yet—a smile creeps over my face. Huh. What a weird little meme. A momentary delight.

I toggle back to the main feed. The sourdough “live” bubbles continue to effervesce. Up first now is a post from the so-called would-be pop king Charlie Puth, whose social media presence I, for lack of a different word, cherish. It is a video of him using a Snapchat face filter that makes him look like a baby (it’s amazing, absolutely uncanny), lip-syncing along to “Wait (The Whisper Song)” by the Ying Yang Twins. Posted here on Instagram, it is a mutant, cross-platform creation with a clear intention; Puth knows that mouthing the words to a Ying Yang Twins song while looking like a baby will have an effect—this is the second time he’s done it in a week. It makes complete sense. It makes no sense at all.

Instagram remains predictable. Right now, when everything is so nightmarish that it’s hard to overstate, the daily content grind during this global pandemic still feels somewhat ordinary (even if everyone’s trying harder to impart an appropriate sense of empathy than we normally would. We’re all hoping our posts find you well in these strange, uncertain times). And all of this social media output, as routine as it most certainly is, feels more surreal than usual—like my entire Instagram feed has gone Dada, even though, well, of course it hasn’t. The sheer existence of posts is blowing my mind. All that should be run-of-the-mill gets pushed into the realm of the absurd, because everything is absurd. Take the Barefoot Contessa herself, Ina Garten, posting a video where she teaches her followers how to make a Cosmopolitan, but at the end pours the drink into a comically oversized glass like it was the most normal thing in the world (it is now). If I may, as a thought experiment, write a phrase that brings me mostly no joy to type: It’s like we’re all waiting for the Godot that is the end of this thing.

A lot of people are writing about being online right now. We’re letting our guards down regarding screen time, we’re encouraging the pastime of posting and consuming earnest nonsense. Our main forms of connection are these mystical black tablets, and particularly for those of us in the extreme relative comfort of self-isolating at home full time, it’s kind of all we have. The digital media powers that be are telling us that this is not the moment to write King Lear, it’s the moment to lose our minds while looking at things like Charlie Puth looking like a baby. Or, I suppose, this is what we tell ourselves.